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Arthur “Bomber” Harris, Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Africa, Southern Africa.
Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Travers Harris, 1st Baronet GCB OBE AFC, commonly known as "Bomber Harris,” was Commander-in-Chief of RAF Bomber Command. In 1942 the Cabinet agreed to the bombing of German cities. Harris was tasked with implementing Churchill's policy and supported the development of tactics and technology to perform the task more effectively. Harris assisted Staff Marshal of the Royal Air Force Charles Portal in carrying out the most devastating attacks against German infrastructure and population. Harris's preference for area bombing over precision targeting in the last year of the war remains controversial, partly because of the large number of civilian casualties and destruction this strategy caused.
Harris was born on 13 April 1892, at Cheltenham, where his parents were staying while his father was on leave from the Indian Civil Service. He was educated at Allhallows School in Devon, while his brothers were educated at Sherborne and Eton. Not considered academically gifted, he was given the choice of "either army or the colonies" at age 16. He chose the colonies and went to Zimbabwe and Zambia in 1908 where, over the next few years, he flourished earning his living "gold mining, driving coaches and general farming" In 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War, Harris joined the 1st Rhodesian Regiment as a bugler, and served with them in South Africa and Namibia. In 1915 he returned to England and joined the Royal Flying Corps, serving with distinction. Harris claimed five enemy aircraft destroyed and was awarded the Air Force Cross and finished the war a major.
After the war, Harris chose to remain in the RAF and later served in India, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. He first got involved in bombing during the annual North West Frontier tribesmen trouble. In Mesopotamia he commanded a Vickers Vernon squadron: "We cut a hole in the nose and rigged up our own bomb racks and turned those machines into the heaviest and best bombers in the command". Harris also contributed to the development of bombing using delay-action bombs, which were applied to keep down uprisings. With regard to this period, Harris is recorded as having remarked "the only thing the Arab understands is the heavy hand." In 1924 Harris was posted to England to command the first post-war heavy bomber squadron.
From 1927 to 1929, Harris attended the Army Staff College at Camberley where the army kept 200 horses for the officers' fox hunting. At a time when all services were short of equipment, the army high command—which was still dominated by cavalry officers—clearly had a different set of priorities from Harris, who quipped that army commanders would only be happy with tanks if they could learn to eat hay and defecate like a horse. He also had a low opinion of the Navy; he commented that three things should never be allowed on a well-run yacht "a wheel-barrow, an umbrella and a naval officer". Bernard Montgomery was one of the few army officers whom he liked; possibly because they shared certain personality characteristics.
His next command was a flying-boat squadron where he continued to develop night flying techniques. He was posted to the Middle East as a senior Air Staff Officer and in 1936 he commented on the Palestinian Arab revolt: "one 250 lb. or 500 lb. bomb in each village that speaks out of turn" would satisfactorily solve the problem”. In 1937 he was promoted to Air Commodore and in 1938 was put in command of No. 4 (Bomber) Group. After a purchasing mission to the USA he was posted to Palestine and Trans-Jordan and in 1939 he was Officer Commanding the RAF contingent in the area.
Harris returned to England in September 1939 to take command of No. 5 Group. In November 1940 he was made Deputy Chief of the Air Staff and in 1941 was promoted to Air Marshal before being appointed Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command in February 1942. At the time, it was making a negligible contribution to the war effort because its aircraft were deficient and aircrews lacked the experience and skill to navigate long distances and drop bombs accurately. Harris immediately set about rectifying such deficiencies with energy. He had studied theories of offensive bombing developed in Germany and was convinced of the effectiveness of a concentrated aggressive approach. He then re-evaluated Bomber Command's tactics and improved standards of instruction and training.
Professor Frederick Lindemann, the British government's leading scientific adviser, presented a paper in 1942 advocating the area bombing of German cities in a strategic bombing campaign. It was accepted by Cabinet and Harris was directed to carry out the task. Lord Cherwell's paper advocated attacking industrial centers to destroy as many homes and houses as possible. Working-class housing areas were to be targeted because they had a higher density and firestorms were more likely. This would displace the German workforce and disrupt and reduce their ability to work. Lindemann's calculations showed that Bomber Command would be able to destroy the majority of German houses located in cities quite quickly. The plan was controversial but the Cabinet thought bombing was, at the time, the only option available to attack Germany. Harris said at the start of the bombing campaign that he was unleashing a whirlwind on Germany.“ The Nazis entered this war under the rather childish delusion that they were going to bomb everyone else, and nobody was going to bomb them. At Rotterdam, London, Warsaw, and half a hundred other places, they put their rather naive theory into operation. They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind.”
At first the effect was limited because of the small number of aircraft used and the lack of navigational aids resulted in inaccurate bombing. As production of better aircraft and electronic aids increased, Harris pressed for raids on a larger scale and in Operation Millennium he launched the first RAF "thousand bomber raid" against Cologne. Harris was just one of an influential group who believed that massive and sustained area bombing would force Germany to surrender. On a number of occasions he claimed that the war would be over in a matter of months. Winston Churchill continued to regard the strategy with distaste and official statements maintained that Bomber Command was only attacking specific industrial and economic targets. In October 1943, emboldened by his success in Hamburg and irritated with Churchill's hesitance to endorse his tactics, Harris urged the government to be honest with the public. His success at Hamburg confirmed the validity and necessity of his methods, and he urged that “the aim of the Combined Bomber Offensive...should be unambiguously stated as the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers, and the disruption of civilised life throughout Germany”. “... the destruction of houses, public utilities, transport and lives, the creation of a refugee problem on an unprecedented scale, and the breakdown of morale both at home and on the battle fronts by fear of extended and intensified bombing, are accepted and intended aims of our bombing policy. They are not by-products of attempts to hit factories”.
In November 1943 Bomber Command began what became known as the Battle of Berlin: a series of massive raids on Berlin that lasted until March 1944. Harris sought to duplicate the victory at Hamburg but Berlin proved to be a more difficult nut to crack. Although severe damage was inflicted, the city was better prepared than Hamburg and no firestorm was ignited. Anti-aircraft defenses were also effective and bomber losses were high. With the build-up to D-Day in 1944, Harris was ordered to switch targets to the French rail network which he protested because he felt it compromised the continuing pressure on German industry and it used Bomber Command for a purpose for which it was neither designed nor suited. In September Harris received a new directive to ensure continuation of a strategic bombing program as well as to support Eisenhower's ground operations. His mission remained "the progressive destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial and economic systems and the direct support of land and naval forces". Several months of rest and refit had been useful and Bomber Command were now able to put up over 1,000 aircraft per raid.
Harris remained wedded to area bombardment and after D-Day, the strategic bombing campaign over Germany resumed. The bombing of Dresden resulting in a lethal firestorm which killed tens of thousands of civilians. The culmination of Bomber Command's offensive occurred in March 1945 when the RAF dropped the highest monthly weight of ordnance in the entire war.
Within the postwar Britain there was disquiet about the level of destruction that had been created towards the end of the war. However, Harris was made Marshal of the Royal Air Force in 1946, and was also made GCB until he retired and wrote his story of Bomber Command's achievements. In his book, concerning Dresden, he wrote: "I know that the destruction of so large and splendid a city …. was considered unnecessary even by a good many people who admit that our earlier attacks were as fully justified as any other operation of war”. Here I will only say that the attack on Dresden was at the time considered a military necessity by more important people than myself." Bomber Command's crews were denied a separate campaign medal and, in protest at this snub to his men, Harris refused a peerage, the sole commander-in-chief not made a peer in 1946. Disappointed by criticism of his methods, Harris moved to South Africa in 1948 and was the manager of the South African Marine Corporation (Safmarine), from 1946 to 1953.
In 1953 Churchill insisted that Harris accept a baronetcy. In the same year he returned to the UK and lived his remaining years in Goring-on-Thames. In 1974 Harris appeared in the documentary series The World At War shown on ITV. In an episode entitled "Whirlwind: Bombing Germany (September 1939–April 1944)", Harris discusses the bombing strategy that he developed. He died on 5 April 1984 at his home in Goring. His only son died without heir in 1996, at which date the Baronetcy of Chipping Wycombe became extinct. In 1989 a drama about Harris's tenure as C-in-C of Bomber Command was broadcast under the title "Bomber Harris" on the BBC. Despite protests, the Bomber Harris Trust erected a statue of him outside the RAF Church of St. Clement Danes, London in 1992. It was unveiled by the Queen Mother who looked surprised when she was jeered by protesters, one of whom shouted "Harris was a war criminal". The line on the statue reads "The nation owes them all an immense debt." RPHarris
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Author: Alan McIver
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